The whole operation of Lawyers for Liberty—an NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights, typically in the court of law—began with an arrest.
While founders Latheefa Koya, N. Surendran along with Eric Paulsen were marching from SOGO to Central Market to protest an increasing clampdown on freedom of assembly at the time, an ironic—and predictable—twist happened when they got arrested. On World Human Rights Day, to boot.
Tripling on said irony, the arrest that was meant to curb similar movements brought the three together, along with other lawyers who had the same interests in human rights, particularly in how it relates to the law of this land.
Push came to shove, and Lawyers For Liberty was formally established as a fully-fledged NGO in 2011 where they began to take up cases full-time.
Lawyers For Liberty is a collection of lawyers and activists with a vision towards human rights.
The organisation champions human rights, and they believe that everyone should be afforded it—even among those who might not usually enjoy its full benefits in this country.
The Lawyers for Liberty website lists those at risk as human rights defenders, students, grassroots activists, opposition politicians, members of parliament, and ordinary Malaysians who have asserted and demanded their rights.
This organisation has received a level of fame—or perhaps infamy, according to some circles—by showing their face and stance behind several high-profile cases.
Until today, the team looks at which cases to take on a case-by-case basis, as long as it falls under the umbrella of serious human rights violations.
In Lawyers for Liberty’s early days, they mostly took part in public interest cases against the police, according to Eric Paulsen, a prolific figure of the organisation.
They had a hand in the final verdict behind Aminulrasyid’s case, a youth who was shot dead by police for attempting to drive away from the police. There was also the case of A. Kugan, who died in police custody while in the USJ Taipan police station in 2009.
“At the time, those were the most prevalent and egregious human rights abuses and injustice in the country,” said Eric.
“Since then we’ve been taking up more civil liberties cases, defending human rights defenders, particularly with the government’s increased use of undemocratic laws like the Sedition Act and Peaceful Assembly Act to curb freedom of speech and assembly.”
They’ve also been outspoken about other public interest cases.
Among some of the more recent issues that have been called out by representatives affiliated with Lawyers for Liberty include Eric Paulsen’s worries of creeping Talibanisation in relation to Kelantan’s newly publicised “shorts for men” laws. Eric has also voiced out against the Immigration Department’s denial of foreign participants to a gay event in KL.
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In very recent news, Latheefa Koya also questioned PPIM’s move to bail the infamous “bogus dentist” out of a RM70,000 court fine.
Surviving on public donations, grants, as well as a pool of a larger group of volunteer lawyers, this NGO manages to take up cases on an ad hoc and pro bono basis.
This also ensures that Lawyers for Liberty remains entirely independent, without political affiliations.
Rather, the organisation’s survival is at higher risk from investigations into where their funding comes from.
“Last year we, along with Bersih and Suaram, were under ‘investigation’ for the non-crime of receiving foreign funding. Fortunately, we came out unscathed but who knows when they may decide to push even harder?”
“In that regard, we are fortunate to be working with other civil service organisations both local and international,” said Eric. “With each other’s support, we have been able to overcome the struggles we have faced.”
Besides that, all three co-founders are still with the cause, along with a couple of full-time lawyers, as well as a number of interns who help out with research and other miscellaneous tasks.
And the members have also had multiple personal brushes with the law.
Eric himself has been detained twice, once for tweeting that “Jakim is promoting extremism every Friday”, and next for tweeting against the Hudud implementation in Malaysia. Co-founder N. Surendran has also been charged and arrested for sedition.
“To say that we’re taking massive risks would be a disservice to those who do similar work in much more brutal regimes, some of which are our ASEAN neighbours. Whatever risks we do face, all come with the work that we do, and we’re lucky in that can still rely on our friends and partners to aid us when things go awry.”
Eric has also added that the sedition charge against him, as well as others, have been put on hold pending a constitutional challenge on the validity of an important provision in Sedition Act at the apex Federal Court.
The circumstances of Eric’s tweets, in his opinion, highlights an important conversation we need to be having about the sedition act, an issue that Lawyers for Liberty is very vocal about.
To be fair, there are few issues in Malaysia that they aren’t vocal about.
“As an activist, these things are an unfortunate occupational hazard, but life goes on, and the struggle must go on.”
“The authorities will always be averse to those who challenge their authority and abuse of power, and criminal charges are simply a way to silence us and hamper our efforts. The most important thing is that we are not cowed and continue the work we do without fear.”
Eric, and by extension Lawyers for Liberty agree that the Sedition Act is “archaic”, characterising it as a “hangover from the British Empire” that is no longer relevant in this day and age.
“Fundamentally, the source of our troubles are the vast array of bad laws in our statute books affecting civil liberties and the government’s enthusiasm in using them in an unfair and arbitrary manner,” said Eric.
Eric cited laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, and even the Penal Code, which are often phrased in broad terms.
“Much of these laws are barely used against those who are pro-government or affiliated with them when they have done much worse, and Malaysia would be no less of a safer place if the problematic provisions were abolished entirely. This would go far to bring Malaysian law in line with international human rights standards, to which we must aspire to conform.”
When asked about the success rates of the cases that Lawyers for Liberty has undertaken, they were coy about sharing any numbers.
“Our successes or otherwise are not measured by the number of cases we win in court, as at the end of the day our objective is to stem the tide of human rights violations in our country.”
“In our line of work, we must always maintain a long-term outlook, which is largely comprised of our impact outside the courtroom. It would be a success, for example, if we can see a clear downward trend in the number of deaths in custody, extrajudicial killings and political arrests or imprisonments.”
Their goal instead is to push back against any government outreach, and in that regard, the team sees positive progress.
As an example, Eric states that it is now easier for the team to see their clients in police custody, or to represent them during remand proceedings.
“There has been much less resistance when it comes to peaceful assembly. Only a couple of years ago it was pretty common to see the FRU deployed, along with their water canons and tear gas. These days, the government is much more hesitant in using such aggressive tactics, and we’d like to think we and others NGOs played a role in making that change.”
You’ll also keep seeing more of Lawyers for Liberty speaking out and publishing statements in the media, as this is all by design.
They hope that it will keep the authorities on their toes, that the civil society will hold them accountable.
“It’s an integral part of being members of a democratic polity. In doing so, we also put it clearly on record what is the right thing for the authorities to do or not to do. “
They feel there’s still a lot left to do, and had this to add in closing.
“Even keeping going isn’t easy. It’s trite to say that we hope the number of cases we take up will dwindle as the government wakes up to the reality of its human rights abuses.”
“Only time will tell whether that will ever become a reality and from what we know right know, the chances are slim. So we will continue fighting.”
Feature Image Credit: Yuisri Yus